Leafs outduel Wings in thrilling Centennial Classic

Three years after the Maple Leafs and Red Wings staged a memorable outdoor game at ‘The Big House’ in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the teams held a rematch on New Year’s Day in Toronto.

Indeed, the 40,148 spectators who assembled at BMO Field – plus millions of viewers on television were treated to a truly classic finish – culminating a Leafs’ 5-4 victory in overtime.

The spectacle both thrilled and frustrated Leafs Nation. Toronto’s habit of surrendering third period leads came to fruition yet again, for a horrific eighth time season. Moreover, the Leafs coughed up what was a seemingly comfortable 4-1 advantage (yes, cue the jokes), the dagger being a somewhat controversial Detroit goal with 1.1 ticks left in regulation.

But despite the setback, rookie sensation Auston Matthews punctuated the pendulum-swing of emotion, pouncing on a bounce off the end boards at 3:40 of overtime to win the game for the Leafs.

There was no foreshadowing of the climactic result. For two periods, the centennial edition of what has been an annual outdoor tradition for the past nine seasons was a tentative, slow-footed chess match. Detroit’s Anthony Mantha was the only player on either team to find the back of the net over forty minutes of action.

But after Leo Komarov found the back of the net, converting a centring pass from Jake Gardiner 83 seconds into the third period, the goal – along with a spirited scrap between Matt Martin and Steve Ott – were the catalysts in igniting an offensive flurry from the Leafs’ young guns.

Mitch Marner sprung his team into the lead, cruising into the slot area and wiring the puck past Red Wings goalie Jared Coreau, the rookie netminder making just his fourth career NHL appearance.

Connor Brown then promptly finished off a pass from behind the net from linemate Zach Hyman to open up a two-goal spread for the Leafs. With the rookies’ ammunition blazing, Brown returned the favour to Matthews on an odd-man rush, Matthews burying the puck home for Toronto’s third goal in 3:42.

As the Leafs rode the crest of a wave of adrenaline, Jonathan Ericsson tempered the onslaught by netting his first goal of the year for Detroit.

Then, as if on cue, the collapse came. A brutal turnover by James van Riemsdyk in the defensive zone led to a sequence during which Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg attempted a wraparound, and Dylan Larkin capitalized on the rebound, at the 18:14 mark of the third period.

Wings coach Jeff Blashill pulled Coreau to the bench for a sixth attacker and the Wings pressed for the equalizer. The Leafs had an opportunity to clear the zone and seal the game in regulation, but Zach Hyman turned the puck over just before the blue line. On the resulting sequence, Anthony Mantha found himself uncovered in the slot, and fired the puck past goalie Frederik Andersen for the tying goal, deflating the hearts of the die-hards in the stands.

The Leafs protested, to no avail, that Thomas Vanek interfered with Andersen.

During the ensuing overtime, Leafs defender Morgan Rielly had a tremendous opportunity to win the game, skating from his own blue line on a breakaway in 3-on-3 action, only to be turned away by Coreau.

Moments later on a Leafs rush, Jake Gardiner dumped the puck into the Wings’ zone where the rubber disc caromed off the end boards, and onto the stick of Matthews, who made no mistake in beating Coreau for his second tally of the afternoon, the game-winner.

The goal was Matthews’s 20th marker of the year, vaulting him past Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine for the rookie goal-scoring lead.

“It was a blast out there, I had a lot of fun,” Matthews said. “The setting – two Original Six teams going at it against each other – it was a pretty fun night. The first two periods were a defensive structure by both teams,not too much space out there. You take what you were given. The third period opened up a little bit, and we scored a couple of quick goals.”

Leafs coach Mike Babcock chose to focus less on his team’s penchant for surrendering the lead and more on his team’s resilience through the adversity.

“I loved tonight, the way it happened tonight, I really liked it,” he said. “Because it’s so easy to feel bad for so bad yourself, and disappointed. Forget all that. Just play the next shift.”

The win was Toronto’s fifth in a row, in spite of the squad giving up two-goal cushions in each of its last three outings.

“I just know that we’re winning, and we’re finding ways to win, and we’re getting way better,” Babcock said.

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Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca